The United States’ failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup is a devastating blow for the sport in this country, but it’s also a clear reflection of how much of a damaging effect the top-flight league has had on the national team in the last number of years.
Coached by Bruce Arena, who has never coached a professional club team outside of the United States, he fielded a team on Tuesday night that was made entirely out of current MLS or former MLS players, except one — Christian Pulisic, the one star that continues to be light years ahead of anyone in the US player squad.
Arena’s insistence on selecting US players from MLS was no mere accident. In 2014 when he was LA Galaxy coach, this is what he said about then USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann:
“I believe an American should be coaching the national team,” Arena told the New York Times. “I think the majority of the national team should come out of Major League Soccer. The people that run our governing body think we need to copy what everyone else does, when in reality, our solutions will ultimately come from our culture.”
Time has proven that Arena’s MLS-or-bust mantra was dead wrong.
But the issues are not all on Bruce Arena nor are they purely a guilt by association with MLS. Here are several reasons why MLS needs to take some of the blame for the USA’s failure:
1) MLS breeds a climate of uncompetitiveness and unaccountability.
When 54% of teams that compete in MLS qualify for the playoffs, the lack of competitiveness and cutting edge in the USA’s top-flight soccer league is evident for all to see. Reflected by TV ratings that continue to flatline, MLS has significant issues encouraging viewers to watch the league on US TV.
That combined with the opinion, held by many experts, that the MLS season doesn’t “begin” in earnest until August when the playoff race enters its final lap, it’s no wonder that the MLS players that wear the shirt for the US Men’s National Team are used to playing in an environment where there isn’t as much pressure as other leagues around the world where every game truly matters.
In 2014, Vancouver Whitecaps winger and US international Brek Shea best summed up how different the culture is in MLS compared to playing in England when he said this:
“It’s more like a 9-5 job over here (in England). In America, you’re having fun and you’re with a group of friends. It’s still very serious – you want to win – but you have that camaraderie. It’s just different. (In England) it’s a job. You go in and you go home and in MLS, you have a team barbecue once a week. You hang with people outside the facility. You don’t really do that here [in England].”
I’m sure Brek Shea’s opinions are shared by many other footballers in MLS that want an easier way to make a living without putting in the hard work.
2) In hiring Bruce Arena, USSF hired a coach in the mold of MLS
After a dispiriting performance against Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday night, US Men’s National Team coach Bruce Arena was asked whether there should be wholesale changes in order to improve in the future.
In his answer, you would expect him to focus on the national team. Instead, his answer revolved around protecting his interests (and those of his colleagues and bosses) in MLS:
“There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing,” Arena argued. “Certainly, I think if our league continues to grow it benefits the national team program. We have some good players coming up. Nothing has to change. To make any kind of crazy changes I think would be foolish. We’re building a consistent professional league. We have players playing abroad of a certain quality. There’s enough there. There’s no excuses for us to not qualify for the World Cup.”
When Sunil Gulati made the decision to hire Bruce Arena, he hired a man that would not go off message (like Klinsmann did). Arena, Gulati believed, would help the US qualify for the World Cup, but would be “better understand” the mindset of American players. It was yet another grave error by the USSF president.
3) By bringing US stars home, MLS has stripped the quality out of the USMNT
Between 2013 and 2016, MLS’ decision to bring home the most high-profile US stars was a calculated move to try to boost TV ratings and raise the level of the league. By doing so, MLS paid Designated Player (DP) wages to lure several key stars back to the North America to play in MLS. These stars were Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey.
Dempsey sold out by giving up his chance to raise his level at Tottenham Hotspur in order to earn more money and guaranteed playing time at Seattle.
Bradley left behind an opportunity to train with the best coaches and professionals in Italy for a cash grab in Toronto. Similarly, Altidore gave up on playing at a high level in Europe to become one of the star signings in Canada.
Howard, who was suffering from a sharp decline at Everton, decided to take the easy route and moved to the Denver area for a bigger paycheck from Colorado Rapids.
Money aside, each of these four USMNT players — who form the spine of the national squad — moved to a league that plays a brand of soccer that is far less technical, features less pressure and guarantees starting spots in each game.
It can be argued that the decline of Howard, Bradley, Altidore and Dempsey — all of whom are now playing at a lower level in MLS — has collectively been a huge reason why the US suffered so badly during this World Cup campaign.
4) MLS, by its very structure, has created a league that has very little competitiveness and accountability.
We can all argue the pros and cons of a promotion/relegation system in the United States, but as long as there’s a closed system like we have in MLS, it breeds uncompetitiveness. When there are teams in MLS that know no matter how bad they perform that there will always be a next season in the top flight, teams (coaches, players and management) can become complacent. Establish the fear of relegation, and that instantly motivates the teams throughout the league to focus on improving their performances. When the stakes are higher, it forces players and coaches to up their game and be accountable.
Major League Soccer by itself is by no means the only issue that is holding back the United States from being a soccer powerhouse. The problems are systemic throughout the entire structure from the leadership at the United States Soccer Federation to the grass roots level. But by having the responsibility of being the top flight league in the United States, MLS needs to realize that it has a very influential impact on the national game.